Filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien came into his own during the 1980s, in the midst of the Taiwanese New Wave, the renaissance period that put Taiwan on the global film map. Masterpieces like A City Of Sadness, The Puppetmaster, and Flowers Of Shanghai established Hou as a major and influential figure on the international film scene, while subsequent projects found him delving into drug-fueled club culture (Millennium Mambo) and working in homage to his favorite filmmakers from Japan (Café Lumière) and France (Flight Of The Red Balloon). And then, he stopped directing.
In the eight years that followed, Hou turned his attention back to Taiwanese film culture, chairing both of the country’s major festivals and opening a small chain of arthouse theaters. Now, he’s returned with The Assassin, an adaptation of a story by the 9th-century writer Pei Xing that Hou first encountered as a film student in the 1970s. The winner of the Best Director prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, The Assassin is a staggeringly beautiful and idiosyncratic re-imagining of the classic martial-arts drama. A week before the movie’s Stateside release, Hou briefly spoke to The A.V. Club over Skype with the help of an interpreter.
The A.V. Club: You took a long break before making The Assassin.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien: It was actually eight years, but it was wasn’t because I wanted to take this time off, but because I was the chairman of the Taipei Film Festival for three years and of the Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan for five years. And it wasn’t until the last two years that I started thinking about coming back into making another film.
AVC: The idea for this film came earlier than that, though.
HHH: I actually read the short story back in college. It was always in the back of my mind as a story I wanted to shoot, but after eight years as the chief of two separate film festivals, at the tail end, I was really thinking about what I wanted to do next and so the idea of shooting this Tang dynasty short story became the front-runner. I thought, “If I’m not going do it now, I’m not going to do it ever.” I am reaching a certain age, and needed to get this out of my system.
AVC: The technology of film changed a lot during those eight years—the big switch over to digital.
HHH: I’m not very familiar with digital formats, and I would have needed to do tests and learn. Actually, I originally wanted to shoot with a Bolex 16mm camera. I wanted to try short shots and to maybe try to do more close-ups and quick edits, because there are limits on how much film you can put in that camera and for how long you can shoot. I even brought two of them to Japan, but when Mark Lee Ping Bin, the director of photography, looked through the viewfinder, it was too small for his eyes. He turned around to me and he said, “I just can’t shoot with this camera.” So we went to 35mm.
AVC: But you didn’t shoot in widescreen.
HHH: I’ve always liked [the 1.37 aspect ratio], but I’d never shot that way. And because I had spent such a long period of time away from making films, I thought this would be a really good opportunity for me to shoot in this 4-by-3 set-up. I like it for filming people, because it makes them look very beautiful. It was always something that I wanted to play around with. And also because it’s the Tang dynasty, and I felt that it represented something visually. I felt the era would look much better in this aspect ratio.
AVC: Most of your movies feel like period pieces, even when they aren’t. How did you approach this era?
HHH: All I want to do is capture the feeling of the era that I’m talking about. In the case of this film, I gave all of the actors documents and research that they could use. But all I ask from them is to get as close to it as possible in their performances. In the case of Shu Qi, if I’d asked her to completely change her performance so that it would fit how a woman at the time of the Tang dynasty would have been like—well, it probably wouldn’t have been realistic to ask that of her.
All I can ask for is something that’s different from what we’d expect. “Does that fully encapsulate the era that we’re portraying?”—that’s not part of my thought process. I just want to do it as close as possible to tell the story.
AVC: Did you do a lot of research yourself?
HHH: I did do a lot of research in preparation. I looked into everything from theater and the status of women at that period to background on silk farming at the time and how it was illegal for them to sell to anyone outside the government. I looked into the way the governing was broken down.
And everything about the sets—how at the time a bed could also be a table and a chair. These are things I really needed to make sure were correct, and a lot of it is from paintings. You can tell all of these things from paintings. A lot of research I did was visual, to make everything very clear for me once we got to the set.
AVC: Was there one specific piece of art that really helped you?
HHH: The answer is “not really.” Some of it was through the written word, which helped me establish what I wanted to shoot for the film. There aren’t really many hard [Tang dynasty] artifacts that have been passed down through time that you could look at. In the National Palace Museum in Taiwan, there are copies of many of these things, but there aren’t a lot of real, full items. There is one painting that I felt left a strong impression. It’s about people going outdoors at the start of the spring and riding horses. And that was just an image that stayed with me.